musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Today we went back to the mosque next door and I found out the man I've been calling a 'Sheikh' this entire time actually should be called 'Sayyid.' By calling him a Sheikh I have completely ignored his direct lineage of the Prophet Mohammed, despite the fact that his black turban can not be worn by mere Sheikhs. That honor, and the Sayyid title, are reserved for those that can trace their exact blood lineage back to the Prophet. In his case, that's 16 generations.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Day in the Life

0730 - Beep. Beep. Beep. Snooze.

0735 - Beep. Beep. Snooze.

0740 - Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Why is the snooze on my alarm set to only 5 minutes? (I reset the alarm for 7:50)

0803 - After a cool shower (the water in the tank on the roof has cooled considerably overnight), I sit down at my laptop to read the news, see what kind of story Lauren has told me while I was sleeping, and check my work email.

0845 - It's already starting to heat up outside and the sun's relentless stare follows me even into the shadows. I wave to the elderly man across the street as he stoops over a dusty flower, gently tending to the small area of foliage outside the family home he has worked so hard to maintain. He stops what he is doing just long enough to return my greeting with his right hand over his chest and smile at me as I walk by in my dusty leather shoes, khaki pants and short-sleeve button-down shirt.

0846 - "Sabah el-khayr" says the guard at the gate. Good morning to you to my friend. Inside this villa, a mere 50 meters from the one in which I reside, live several of the personal security team members and, more importantly, the dining room. Breakfast is optional both as a general rule and to me personally; more often than not a banana/apple combo followed by a mid-morning snack of another banana will suffice. This morning I'm feeling particularly invigorated, so I settle myself down in the heavily curtained, and always frighteningly cold, dining room to enjoy toasted Iraqi diamond-shaped bread with honey and bananas. Sometimes, if I find myself missing the familiar tastes of DC's Busboys and Poets, I'll throw in a bit of peanut butter to the mix. Not this morning though, just a solid breakfast of champions for me.

0904 - Walking through the 'secret' door between the dining villa and the one right next door, I notice that the pile of old furniture, generators, etc. to the side of the building is noticable smaller since yesterday. Possibly a 'sticky hands' situation, but more likely the reincarnation of a purging process that began soon after our arrival in Hillah. As always Zeid, the cleaner/misc. employee, greets me with a smile and handshake, his bright young face accented by an unmistakable unibrow. Ehab is next, getting up from his desk to say a few kind words and practice the few phrases he learned during his time working for a Turkish construction company in the North, followed by a wave to the logistics department on my way upstairs.

0906 - Climbing the uneven stairs the the 1.5th floor (my office is directly off the staircase in between the ground and second floors), I enter the space that has become my second home. As usual, Muthana is sitting behind his desk with headset on, Skyping with other staff in the surrounding provinces. Offering a silent smile and a handshake, he continues his work undisturbed. Ayad is tucked away in another corner of the small office, facing my desk, pretending like he is hard at work...

0914 - Muthana ends his call, asks me how my previous evening was, and starts a theoretical discussion into why Iraqis have been cursed with perpetual sandstorms, like the one we had yesterday, in recent history which ends with an update on the status of his refugee application to the US.

1036 - I receive an email from Yousif telling me that we recently completed construction of a women's center in Najaf that provides computer and sewing machine access, not to mention vocational training courses, to local women many of whom haven't been employed in 5+ years. He sends me this to me because I have become "Mr. Success Story" i.e. the one charged with pulling the heartstrings of our benefactor (USAID), Congress, our US headquarters, and anyone else who may be interested. It is a rewarding yet somewhat frustrating task. I see their faces through the pictures taken by our staff and the transformation of their lives in still images on the screen of my laptop. Although it's an incredibly selfish sentiment given the change I truly believe we are making here, I can't help feeling like I'm so close to them, yet somehow so far away.

1225 - Ahmed calls - it's time for lunch. This time I enter the kitchen first, paying homage to Muhammed, a tiny man who is charged with providing us with sustenance, spice and variety in our lives i.e. the cook. His English is quite good after several years working in the kitchens of the al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, once the center of distinguished Iraqi culture and life, now a decaying relic of the glory days. Today we have chicken soup, rice, beef and potatoes, and salad. Do we have any yoghurt today Muhammed? "Yes, Mr. Erol, I bought just for you."

1231 - Lunch in the dining room brings me back to the reality of my situation. Having just spent the morning working closely with my Iraqi colleagues, discussing management best practices, solving problems, and sending emails to my staff, I almost forget that I:
  • live in a compound; and
  • can't leave the compound without 72 hours notice, a convoy of armored cars, and a darn good reason.
Lunch with a mix of the other expatriates and the 7 large security guys, all carrying sidearms, quickly snaps me back to earth. Although I'm extremely grateful (and spoiled) not to have to cook or do dishes, I resolve once again to start scheduling regular lunches with my Iraqi staff.

1427 - Lauren is awake and sends me good morning/afternoon wishes; a welcome reprive that never fails to make me smile.

1456 - Muthana saves me from the excruciatingly tedious task of analyzing project data provided by those in the field offices *yawn* by asking me my opinion on something. Muthana is my right-hand-man for the five provinces in South Central Iraq in which we work, managing the folks out there directly so that I don't have to. He often has questions about... well... anything, and they all follow a similarly endearing pattern:

"Um, excuse me sir, sorry, may I ask you a question?"

Of course, Muthana (I've long since stopped trying to get people to call me sir; I guess it comes with the territory).

"Thank you sir. I am very interested in building the capacity of M&E (monitoring and evaluation) officers. I want them not to have to say 'oh, Muthana is not here, what will we do?'"

The phrase 'building the capacity' is one heavily used and beloved by most staff here.

"I want them to learn to be good managers."

Although not a question per se, I understand where he's going with this, and we spend the next 25 minutes discussing the phrase (and meaning of) 'delegation of responsibility,' how it can be implemented in this environment, and how it is a first step to managerial capacity building. I also stress the importance of patience and the power of incremental delegation - two things that are exceedingly difficult in a world where funding is finite and project timelines short.

1532 - I arrive sweaty and two minutes late for a meeting with Richard, who is of course waiting for me when I arrive and asks me if I'm on 'Iraqi time.' In reality, I would've been on time had it not been for Duraid, whom I haven't seen for few days, stopping me in the road to tell me about his new son and how his wife would now be staying with her family for the next 40 days in accordance with tradition. I'm not sure which he was happier about... I'm sure it was the child.

1647 - With my two officemates gone and the office in the US awake and humming, I spend the next three quarters of an hour discussing strategy and other things of purported import with those that care to listen.

1752 - I close my laptop and head back to my room. It is still bright and the streets are blazing from a days worth of unrelenting sun, but the streets are starting to fill up with children chasing each other, riding bicycles, playing soccer and, as I walk by, waving to me.

1803 - After forcing myself to put on athletic shorts and a t-shirt, I head downstairs to the exercise room. Those that know me know how much I love the gym, so it takes a heavy daily dose of the "Lauren's Workout" playlist on my i-Pod to get me going after a long day at work.

1844 - Sweaty and exhausted, I slowly climb the stairs to my room, satisfied with myself but frustrated at the continued existence of doughy love handles clinging to the sides of my waist...

1900 - The thrice-daily Shia call to prayer from the mosque next door reminds me that it's time to go eat again. I think it's meant for a different purpose, although I haven't quite figured that one out yet. Dinner is a minor variation of lunch, both in terms of food and the cast of characters. Tonight Muhammed has added on some nice banana bread, presumably for dessert but realistically for breakfast.

1933 - Having worked hard, exercised, and eaten well (sometimes too well I must admit), I sit down to work for a few more minutes, wrapping up anything that can't wait until tomorrow. Richard and Vince are out in the garden gossipping over gin and tonic... tempting, but three nights in a row would be a bit excessive in my opinion. The gchats and Skype conversations with those back home are flowing abundantly now and I do my best to tell everyone that I'm fine, that Baghdad is indeed far from where I am and thus I didn't hear the explosion that happened there yesterday, that my work is very interesting, and that life is different - but not all bad - over here in Iraq (I look forward to now giving them the link to this post).

2204 - Before I crawl into bed to read, satisfied that another productive day has passed, I glance at the corkboard above my desk filled with pictures: Lauren and Mom in Cappadocia; Nene and Dede all dressed up at the Sheraton; Kate trying to look as short as she can next to Jamin; Josh telling Lauren a funny story on the futon; Baba and my brother smiling at Errol's birthday party; the Tejas boys at Stephen and Jonathan's graduation; the Haralsons and McClures in front of the Capitol; Natalie, Lauren, Carly and Josh at the zoo; etc. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss them all terribly.

2259 - As I drift off to sleep, I wonder what tomorrow will bring (although I know it'll be much of the same) and salivate at the thought of banana bread in the morning. Maybe I'll change my alarm to 7:45......